Extreme floods and storms are becoming more frequent: Their incidence rose five fold globally in the last decade compared with the 1970s. Asia is at the sharp end of this trend, which has alarming consequences for human welfare and enormous implications for policy makers.
At the same time, the climate in Asia and the Pacific has been changing. Temperatures have, on average, been higher, and rainfall more variable and extreme. So is there a link between these changes in climate and the increase in natural disasters?
A just published paper from the Asian Development Bank looks at three factors behind the increase. The first is the rising exposure of populations to natural hazards. Asia is by far the world’s most populous region, and growing numbers of people are locating in harm’s way, such as in flood-prone urban areas. The second is the increased vulnerability of populations, because of high-population densities and the limited capacity of the poor to withstand the risks. And third, there is a notable association with climate change, represented by greater temperature and precipitation extremes.
Scientific evidence connects rising greenhouse gas emissions to changes in temperature and precipitation. This, in turn, suggests a link between increasing natural disasters and man-made emissions of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Research in this area is controversial. For skeptics, damage costs and not the climate hazards themselves have been rising because of population growth and higher infrastructure costs. But compelling evidence suggests otherwise. Studies, for example, estimating the impact of climate change on the probability of 2003’s heat wave in Europe and droughts in the Mediterranean in 2010, found that human influence markedly increased the risk of these events happening.
Temperature anomalies during the months that intense natural hazards occur are increasing in the Asia and the Pacific. In the Philippines, the typical path of cyclones has shifted southward; tropical cyclones of weaker intensity now have intense rains, while the frequency of hot days and warm nights is increasing. In Sri Lanka, a recent study projected a decline in precipitation in the Central Highlands, where a large share of the country’s hydropower is generated.
Threat from disasters
The stakes are high for Sri Lanka, which has seen a marked rise in severe floods in recent years. With the civil conflict over, the country is trying to engineer economic take-off and make further progress on reducing poverty and improving living standards. The outlook is encouraging, with the Asian Development Bank’s forecasting the economy growing 6.8 percent in 2013 and 7.2 percent in the following year, noticeably above the average for South Asia.
But the potential for natural disasters to wreak economic havoc is boundless and the odds have risen that they will happen more frequently. Thailand’s great floods in 2011 cost the economy an estimated $45.5 billion - over 13 percent of the gross domestic product - in production losses and damages. Sri Lanka is no stranger to such depredations, with an estimated 20 percent of its rice harvest destroyed in the drought and floods of 2011 and 2012.
Climate-related hazards may soon have the same potential to blow economies off course as a global economic slowdown. It is not far-fetched to imagine that a tropical cyclone of the force of, say, Ketsana, which in 2009 dumped more rainfall on Philippines’ economic heartland in a matter of hours than would have been normal in a monsoon month, could hit two or three times in a single rainy season. Just like stress tests on a country’s financial health, it is time that countries conducted tests on their resilience to natural disasters.
Recognizing that natural disasters are becoming increasingly endemic in Asia, will be essential for the region’s continued economic success. Multilateral development banks, aware that disasters can wipe out years of progress, are urging governments to integrate disaster preparedness and adaptation in their economic plans and to step up investment in these areas.
Governments are taking note, but the big question is whether timely action will result in increased investment in reducing disaster risk. A dual approach is needed - one that deals with disasters immediately after they strike with recovery measures and confronts them with prevention. But preventive actions are lacking in much of developing Asia.
The United Nations’ latest World Risk Report ranks Sri Lanka higher than India and Pakistan on population exposure and vulnerability with respect to coping capacity. One of the objectives of the National Physical Plan (2010-2030) is to minimize the threat of natural disasters on communities. To this end, promoting inland development, a planned objective, could play an important role in tackling coastal vulnerability.
Strong winds and heavy monsoon rains that killed at least 50 people, many of them fishermen, on June 8 again exposed the need for timelier storm warnings and better storm tracking - a situation that could be improved by the recent purchase of a Doppler weather radar. Yet Sri Lanka still reportedly faces a shortage of meteorologists.
Many countries trying to reduce budget deficits face funding constraints, especially for big-ticket projects, needed to make urban areas more disaster resilient. But this is false economics, because the cost to socio-economic development of inaction in the face of the rising threat of disasters will be greater than the cost of making the needed investments.
The policy implications are two-fold. Firstly, disaster prevention needs to feature in development strategies. Second, climate action needs to be added as a crucial dimension in disaster prevention. Climate adaptation, relating to people’s exposure and vulnerability to the risks could help ameliorate disaster impacts. Climate mitigation - reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere - is also essential.
A new mindset is needed that no longer treats natural disasters as bolts from the blue, but recognizes them as a growing and systemic hazard made worse by the hand of man.
(Vinod Thomas is Director General of Independent Evaluation at the Asian Development Bank in Manila)